- On Film: A History of the Motion Picture
- Copyright © 1983 by McGraw-Hill, Inc.
- By Frank E. Beaver (The University of Michigan)
In 1917 Griffith was invited by the government of England to make a film abroad dealing with World War I. He accepted and the result was Hearts of the World. After touring the battlefields of Europe for locations, Griffith and Billy Bitzer shot a number of scenes in England and in France. Additional documentary footage was purchased from an Austrian officer for use with reenacted sequences. The story itself was a simple, personal account of the war’s impact on the lives of several characters. Like so much of Griffith’s work with screen characterization, emphasis was placed on sentiment and melodrama.
Hearts of the World, which opened at Clune’s Auditorium in March 1918, is notable for several reasons. The picture, produced concurrently with the war, represented a propagandistic contribution to the war effort. Until the Armistice with Germany, the him was quite successful with audiences, inciting in many viewers intense hatred. Griffith’s treatment of the Germans was one-dimensional and entirely negative. After the war ended, Adolph Zukor, the film’s distributor, insisted that the inflammatory scenes be deleted and reluctantly Griffith reedited Hearts of the World down from a twelve-reel story to an eight-reel version.
THE LILLIAN GISH FILMS
At this point in his career D. W. Griffith began to draw heavily on the talents of one of his leading actresses, Lillian Gish, who had been a principal player in The Birth of a Nation and in Hearts of the World as well as other Griffith efforts. In three important pictures made between 1919 and 1921 he used Gish as his star: Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921).
Broken Blossoms: Studio Effects
Broken Blossoms was particularly notable for its studio effects and the atmospheric elements incorporated into the film’s production design. The picture was based on a short story from Thomas Burke’s book, Limehouse Nights, in which a young abused English girl (Lillian Gish) finds solace through her friendship with a Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess). Griffith treats the girl’s violent torture by her boxer father (Donald Crisp) in an open and shocking manner.
By contrast, the scenes in which the girl is befriended and comforted by the Chinese man are serene and poetic in visual quality. Fog effects, atmospheric lighting, and soft photography create an evocative mood for the melodramatic story. Griffith’s expert handling of the atmospheric elements—possible only within the controlled environment of a studio—would inspire other filmmakers to move their productions indoors. Because of the intense melodrama and evocative imagery, Broken Blossoms became both a popular and critical success. Lillian Gish was especially memorable as the sad-faced girl who could be made to smile only by the pressing of fingers to the corners of her mouth. This image of the forced smile remains one of the most haunting examples of Griffith’s directorial penchant for screen sentiment. Broken Blossoms also achieved significance as the first Griffith film to be distributed by the newly formed United Artists Corporation, a production-distribution organization which had been incorporated in January 1919 by Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks.
Between the completion of Broken Blossoms and his next important film, Way Down East, Griffith directed five pictures: True Heart Susie (1919), Scarlet Days (1919), The Greatest Question (1919), The Idol Dancer (1920), and The Love Flower (1920). All were fairly commonplace melodramas except for Scarlet Days which was a western story starring Walter Long and Richard Barthelmess. Lillian Gish appeared only in True Heart Susie and The Greatest Question. The Greatest Question, The Idol Dancer, and The Love Flower, the last three in the series, were assignments taken on for First National Pictures as a means of raising money so that Griffith could finance his own films and complete the building of a production studio he had begun in Mamaroneck, New York. Griffith’s ambition at this point in his career was to be totally free of all affiliations except the distribution arrangement with United Artists.
Way Down East: Creative Geography
Way Down East (1920) brought the Griffith-Lillian Gish team forcefully back to the screen in an adapted stage melodrama which showed the director and star at their best. The story, full of sentiment and action, was filmed at the Mamaroneck studio site with additional snow and ice scenes shot on location in Vermont and Connecticut. Gish portrayed an innocent young rural woman named Anna Moore who must bear the burdens of abandonment by a city cad, the birth and death of her child, and the hazards of a blizzard which leave the woman stranded on ice floes, moving toward certain death.
Way Down East was an enormous commercial success, principally because of Griffith’s suspenseful editing of the last-minute rescue of the woman from the ice floes, the authentic location photography in scenes filmed during an actual blizzard, and the carefully shaped story in which sympathy builds for the innocent young woman who is played with considerable restraint by Gish.
An anonymous reviewer for Exceptional Photoplays praised Lillian Gish’s performance in Way Down East and noted the results of the collaboration between her and Griffith:
Mr. Griffith could be depended upon for bringing out the full pathos of Anna’s tragedy. His genius for this sort of thing has always been great. And, as usual, he has had the advantage of Miss Lillian Gish’s unlimited cooperation. It is a truly astonishing thing about the young artist that one can always say that her latest work is her best. One wonders how high she can still climb on the ladder of superb screen acting. Or perhaps it is a question of how far Mr. Griffith and Miss Gish can go together, for it is often impossible to tell in their work where direction ends and interpretation begins. [Exceptional Photoplays , December 1920.]
The last-minute rescue in Way Down East remains exciting to this day because of the realism in filming the ice floe sequence. Lillian Gish and her rescuer, Richard Barthelmess, risked their lives in order to give Griffith the authenticity he sought in bringing the him to its dramatic climax. Only The Birth of a Nation earned more money for Griffith.
Orphans of the Storm: Historical Spectacle
Orphans of the Storm, which opened in Boston in late December 1921, was Griffith’s last film with Lillian Gish and one of only two memorable motion pictures made after Way Down East. The story that became Orphans of the Storm was adapted from a popular stage melodrama, The Two Orphans. Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy, another favorite Griffith actress, portray sisters on the screen who become involved in the tragedy of the French Revolution. Again Griffith’s work was impressive for its sentiment and its spectacle.
One of the sisters (Dorothy) is blind, a fact which further intensifies sympathy for the two innocent victims. As in Intolerance grand-scale settings were constructed for Orphans of the Storm, settings which are even more realistic in detail than those built for the 1916 epic. The second half of the story recreates with considerable success the Revolution itself. Sensational crowd scenes, dramatic lighting effects, and Griffith’s obligatory last-minute rescue of Lillian Gish from death at the guillotine produced an exciting motion-picture experience.
In many ways Orphans of the Storm represented the very essence of D. W. Griffith’s screen career. His unmistakable him style was noted at the time by the critic for Life, Robert E. Sherwood: There is a definite Griffith tradition in the movies, and Orphans of the Storm lives up to this tradition in every aspect. It contains the usual elements of pure, unsullied love as contrasted with base, degenerate passion, the usual suspense that is promoted by obvious but none the less efficacious tricks, the usual amount of strife, the usual railing against intolerance and oppression, the usual beauty, the usual note of sordid tragedy, and above all, the usual Ku Klux Klan climax. All these elements are to be found in every Griffith picture, from The Birth of a Nation to Way Down East. Pictorially and dramatically, Orphans of the Storm is better than any of them. [Life, February 2, 1922.]
This summary of Griffith’s broad filmic style focuses on both the achievements and limitations of the early great master of motion-picture technique. By this time in his career Griffith could continue to impress audiences and critics with his powerful use of camera, scenic design, and editing. The very nature of his stories—Victorian and moralistic in inspiration—were recognizable for their “obvious” repetitive elements and antiquated stance. Griffith’s interests did not appear to be advancing beyond his desire for putting compelling sentiment and melodrama onto the screen. Subtlety would never become a Griffith characteristic and in time the flaw proved fatal to his career.